INTERVIEW: DEEDEE JONROWE

I had been looking forward to this interview for a long time. I recently had the opportunity to catch up with mushing icon DeeDee Jonrowe. As mushing legends go, there aren’t many that can compare. Having raced the Iditarod since 1980 and fought many life hardships including surviving cancer, she has a mushing wisdom and perspective shared only by a few. I am always amazed by people like DeeDee, who are able to come out the other side of near death and are willing to share and help others by drawing on their experiences. Always on the move and seemingly tireless, DeeDee had just finished the Kusko 300 in Bethel and was a couple of weeks away from the Klondike 300 in Knik. DeeDee is also the musher featured on Alaska’s newly minted “Statehood Stamp.” I guess you know you’ve arrived when they put you on postage. Sitting in her kitchen overlooking her dog yard we chatted for over an hour while the largest and bravest ravens I’ve ever seen “terrorized” her dogs. Enjoy.G: We know you’ve been racing Iditarod since 1980. Can you recall your first experience with a sled dog, and did you catch the addiction right away?D: My very first experience was up in Fairbanks. I was friends with John Cooper, we had mutual friends. He had a small team. It wasn’t a competitive team. He brought them up to Fairbanks, five dogs. He was dating my girl friend at the time. When they weren’t home, I hooked up his five dogs—I can’t believe I did this, I can’t believe Coop still speaks to me. I hooked up the five dogs to one of those kid’s sleds, and promptly lost them. They were lost for a day and a half. We found them over near Wainwright and they were okay, but needless to say, I was in big big trouble. If somebody did that to me, I would be furious! I was beside myself. That was my very first experience putting dogs in harness by myself. Coop and I went on to run Iditarod together some of the same years and we still see each other every year. I don’t know how much Coop holds that against me anymore. I always thought he was an amazing man, an adventurous man. So, after that, I decided it would be awhile before I did anything with sled dogs. The next experience was with Walt Palmer, a friend of my father’s. I came home for Christmas from Bethel and my parent’s said that Walt would let me drive his team. So I went out and drove a five-dog team and that seemed like great fun. I asked him if I could race his dogs in the Women’s Rondy, it was 1978 or 1979. I didn’t have a clue as to what I was talking about. He said, “Oh yeah, little lady, you can do that.” Supposedly he was going to train them up for me and I was going to fly in, be a fly-in musher, which is a terrible idea. Anyway, I entered the Women’s Rondy and there were dogs in heat and they weren’t well-behaved dogs to start out with, fighting and breeding. They ended up bolting off the track and onto Tudor Road, dragging me down the road on my face. Finally somebody in traffic stopped to help me. I called for the truck and scratched from the race. I thought it was great, but I wanted to do it with my own dogs and my own set of rules. I got a little five-dog team and took them back to Bethel. G: You raced the Iditarod during some historic years—the 1980s. It was a time when the race was starting to make the transition from regional peculiarity to the national stage and national awareness. Looking back on that time, racing against Rick, Susan, Joe Runyan, what are your memories of it now?D: I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about that the past year and a half or so. I think about where we camped. Jerry Austin was a big part of that era. He was tough, tough as nails. The first race I ran, Herbie was running third on ivory runners. It was cool, really cool. We were doing it the old way. We would sometimes have to break trail with our snowshoes and walk miles in front of teams and take turns. We had to do a lot of camping in between checkpoints. There wasn’t so much checkpoint to checkpoint running. The trail wasn’t that good and we didn’t have as good nutrition and therefore didn’t have the good recovery that we have on the dogs today. There were hardly any snow machines out there. There wasn’t anybody following the trail like there is today. What ever the trail-breakers once put out there, and I do mean once put out there, that was all that was there for trail. The first time I went across the Farewell Burn, it had only burned a year or so before. There was all this dead fall and our sleds were forever hung up and our dogs and their traces were hung up in dead, fallen trees. It had never been chain sawed out. We were crawling under brush and under dead trees and over dead trees. I remember being out there with Rudy Demaski, Ken Chase and Don Honea and we would lay our dog teams down and go walking around trying to see where the trail was. Kenny had a dog named Piper that he could put in a down-stay while he went walking around and then whistle them up and Piper would bring the team over to him. The types of dogs that made a race team competitive and took the stress off the driver in those days were those kinds of dogs, not necessarily the fastest dogs, but they were true command leaders that had trapline attributes. You could lay them down and get from point A to point B and they helped you navigate the water and crawl under and over trees. They had a lot more going for them than some of our race leaders do today. G: What do you feel about the evolution of this sport from that kind of utilitarian race to what it is today, which is basically a multi million dollar international sporting spectacle? D: Well, everything has to grow or it dies. It’s got to evolve or it will die on the vine. The sport is evolving, long distance driving is evolving the way it is, with a lot of competition. But I still find my mind wandering to be in a part of the old days when you were surviving on your relationship with your dogs and you were traveling for months by dog team. The gold was being carried that way. Supplies were being carried. There was a storm and you held up. I held up in a fish camp there at Island Point for two days. It was Jerry Austin, me and Lavon and Rick Mackey and that was going to be my first top ten finish. We were laying out there and knowing there were 22 teams piled up in Shaktoolik. We needed to get out of there before those guys felt like the storm was clearing up. We had to go look for driftwood to make a fire so we could make our food stretch. We would never go out with such lightweight equipment and lightweight amounts of food as we do today. I think even today if you were to go through the sleds and you would look to see who was carrying the heavier sleds and supplies, I bet it would be me, Sonny, and Rick, Martin— people who have been in a storm between checkpoints. We have been there. We have run out of food. We’ve had to stretch food and medical supplies and we don’t see the wisdom in going ultra light. What I notice is a lot of complaining in the mushers meetings about lack of support: “Gee, we don’t have hot water at checkpoints.” or “It’s hard to sleep, I wish we had cots at the checkpoints.” I think that is so far outside of our expectations.G: You probably get this question a lot but I do want to ask, do you feel being a woman amongst mostly male participants gives you an advantage or disadvantage in competition?D: I have had that one a lot and I have thought of a lot of answers over the years. You have to understand I have only participated in this sport as a female so I can’t really give you a “inside a guy’s body” kind of comparison. I’m a female that has had multiple surgeries, multiple treatments, so some of the strength factors are sacrificed. I have seen over the years a definite advantage to having some upper body strength and being able to man-handle your load and your sled, being able to physically get those food drops moved around at checkpoints. I have seen real advantages to the strength that I don’t have. On the other hand, there are times when I think my lack of stature has had some advantages.Your dogs are only ready for what you prepare them for. My dogs have always carried me. They haven’t carried Martin and then me. They carry me. They are muscled, they are prepared and they are mentally ready to carry me and to work as a team with me. The fact that I weigh less than Rick—what difference does that make? Rick’s dogs have been training and are muscled to carry him. It might be different if we were racing from the same kennel, but since that’s not the case, that comparison is not really there. I think you can look at the champions over the years and see that there’s a lot more to it than just how much they weigh. I’ve definitely seen the athleticism of the champion become a bigger factor. Joe Runyan was a real transitional champion for that. Susan definitely put a lot of emphasis on that. She was one of the first ones I knew that spent a great deal of time eating healthy and staying in shape.G: I have noticed that with Lance too..D: He is no little shrinking chemotherapy victim. No, he has obviously paid attention to bringing himself to the table at the best he can be. It has as much to do with what’s inside his head as what’s inside his body. I have seen great athletes put on the Iditarod trail and they cry like a baby. They might do well in a one-day grueling competition but not in a multiple-day Iditarod race. G: You can be as mentally tough as any person, man or woman.D: That’s it. And I think some of the other things that have happened to me over the years—maybe my body is not the same, but my mind is stronger.G: That leads me to my next question. Five years ago you were diagnosed with cancer. Others I’ve spoken with about their own struggle with the disease often speak of coming out the other side of it with a new found strength, desire and even, focus (such as Lance Armstrong). Can you tell me if you are able to draw strength from your experience, or how has it changed you?D: Well, first of all, one of the myths I’d like to dispel is that everybody that comes through cancer can come through the other side like Lance Armstrong. People throw that in your face a lot. Lance Armstrong was twenty-something years old when he was afflicted with cancer. He was at a whole different place in his life than somebody who is forty or sixty that is going through chemotherapy. Just going through cancer doesn’t even begin to address about the different kinds of treatments that you are exposed to, which will make a huge difference in what kind of life you will have ahead of you. It’s hard to generalize. Because I have been interested in how other people handle it I’ve noticed that we have a tendency to put these generalizations and set the cancer survivor up as a failure if they don’t have this monumental performance after cancer. The mere fact that they are back with their lives is a huge accomplishment. Years ago it was a death sentence. I found it was way more difficult than I had ever imagined. I had no idea that it took you down as low as it did. I certainly understand Joe Sr. When it came back he said, “I’m not going there again.” I understand that. If I were Joe, I think I would make the decision he made. You fight it and if that battle is going to have to be fought again, your quality of life comes in and you have to take a good hard look at that for yourself personally and for your family. How much value is there in going to the ER for treatments again? I think it has given me a much more serious attitude. I am also very grateful for being out there. I felt it at Kusko and on the Iditarod trail—a huge thankfulness that I was back out doing the things that made me smile, made me sing, and made me happy that I was able to do it again. I was able to be a part of the equation and I was able to play at the game again. We’ll see where that leads me but I get so much satisfaction out of traveling my dogs across the state of Alaska that I don’t know how to compare it to other people’s pleasures. G: I remember how you talked about that during the Discovery channel show, how much you were enjoying the experience and being with your dogs.D: Running the Iditarod is no longer a single year competition. It’s a culmination of a lifetime and a lifestyle. I’ve been running dogs longer than anything other than being married to Mike but it’s close. I’ve been married 32 years and I’ve been running dogs for 30 years. It represents so many good things in my life: so many good people, so many good dogs, so much beautiful country, so many miracles that I’ve witnessed and that I’ve been a part of, so much digging deeper and harder than you ever thought you could go and coming out the other end of it. Then comes the confidence of saying yes, I can survive this and I can survive that and I can survive something else because I won’t give up, I won’t give in. That serves you well. I know that when we were in the car accident years ago (October 1996), I remember thinking to myself that every survival skill I had learned on the Iditarod trail up until that point I needed in order to come out of that car accident with Mike and I alive. At that point I had never had anybody die right with me. There were a lot of things going wrong at the same time and there was only one person that could do anything about it and that was: me. I felt like it was all my Iditarod training coming to the table to help me get through it. That was a single event that lasted for a winter. But cancer was a lot longer than that, lots longer. I didn’t think I needed that lesson twice. G: Mushing is really an individualistic sport. Many get into it because they would rather be, or are better with, their animals than other humans. You are one of the most recognizable figures in this sport. Can you describe any parallels you find between managing and running a dog team, and dealing with day-to-day life on this planet?D: Well, first of all there is two ways to look at a team and I think there is two ways to look at life. I feel like the teacher that comes home every day and says, “So and so got it today. The light bulb went on. They figured it out. They learned how to make their cursive A.” And the rest of the class might not have gotten it but there is so much satisfaction because someone you have been working so hard with finally learned it. I’ve heard similarly teachers say, “No matter what I do, James can’t get it. He’s too stupid.” Because I enjoy my dogs so much I find satisfaction in every run because some particular dog did something glowing. They got a command. Running without necklines has given us opportunity to see the dogs thinking on their own. You give a command and somebody in back of the team jumps it and you think, “Do you want to try that up front?” You are constantly giving them opportunities to grow and expand and learn things. I see the dogs as a group of individuals that are at different levels of learning, different levels of maturity and that have different agendas on any one given day. Generally I consider that all my dogs want to please me so if for some reason they don’t, I look to see why rather than, “I knew they were there to trip me up.” I don’t see them like that. Dogs live in the moment. They want to do the right thing to please you, but maybe they are sore, or maybe they are spooked, maybe they are getting a non-verbal cue from their partner that is setting them on edge. When you start looking for those things, they are so much more complicated. It’s multi-tasking at its max. That’s what I really enjoy about long distance racing over shorter runs because it gives you time to put that whole unit together, to unlock their personalities, encourage them, because you have lots of time to work with them. Yesterday I went out on a run and I was going to stay out for six or seven hours. I’m trying to get the dogs that didn’t go to Kusko caught up. I had two Kusko dogs in there that had been dropped early and they looked good in the yard. It wasn’t long out of the yard that I could see they were still sore. I went back and dropped those two dogs in the yard and put in two other dogs and was gone for six hours. I got so much satisfaction in figuring it out. G: Just to change the subject from dogs for a minute: triathlons—why on earth would you want to torment yourself like that?D: I first started running, I don’t know how many years ago, maybe 10, because I had decided I wanted to understand what was going on with my dogs that I couldn’t see from their body language. I wanted to know if there was something I could understand better. There was a lot actually. G: I always thought that people who were athletes themselves made better dog mushers.D: I think so too because you understand run and rest schedules, hydration, feeding schedules, the benefits of putting the right amounts of stress on and then backing down. You understand inappropriate stress. You can participate with the team and I’ve always thought that was a big part of it as well. That’s why I started. My insight was amazing. The first half marathon I did was based on the same kind of training schedules we were using for the dogs and I hit the wall at ten miles, stumbled in at twelve miles and didn’t feel like eating or drinking and was incredibly sore. So then I thought I would do it a different way. A month later I did another half marathon and that one I did 30 minutes faster, recovered immediately, ate and drank right away and flew to Fairbanks and did another 10K that night. It was quite a bit of difference in just four weeks of training in a different way and I thought that I needed to train my sled dogs in a different way. I found things to apply. The running community is very supportive in Alaska. They were kind to me. It’s humbling to go into another sport when you’ve been at the top of another. But that was okay. I continued to run and eventually got overuse injuries from running so much. I did Crow Pass, Mount Marathon, Matanuska Peak and a lot of long mountain runs. That led to cross training and I decided to do triathlons. That brought in my biggest handicap: I had never been a swimmer. So now I was 45, trying to learn how to swim. The hand/cross body coordination was hard. I have to say that’s what came out of training for Ironman: I can swim now. It’s still not my best sport but I’m not scared of swimming like I was.G: Well, hopefully you won’t need that skill on the Iditarod trail! This is a funny story: I was managing a photography studio in NYC in the mid-90s. One of our accounts was to photograph clothing and merchandise for the Eddie Bauer account. During the photo shoots, the advertising people from Eddie Bauer would come out from the HQ in Seattle. I knew that they sponsored you at the time, but I didn’t think the people at the HQ would know much about you. I asked one of the very corporate, serious young ladies about you. Well it took about ½ second for her whole personality to change. Her eyes lit up and she explained she had just met you while you were at the HQ. She followed all of your Iditarod races and even knew the names of some of your dogs. She was a big fan. So here’s the question: Are you comfortable with, and how do you handle the publicity and attention you get?D: I find that part of it exciting because I see it as an opportunity to positively affect and grow our sport. Now if you had asked me, “Gee, you could have this great influence if you would just get cancer. It would just open this whole new world for you.” I would never in a million years gone that direction. Whatever has come into my life, I have tried to use it to help and encourage others to go on with the passions of their life and to help them decide the priorities of their life. It is really a privilege to have that—to be able to encourage people to pursue their passions, to release themselves from other people’s expectations, to encourage them that they could be successful at things they dreamed of only as a hobby, to recognize that a gift to be able to communicate with dogs is a valuable commodity that you might be able to actually support yourself with. It’s not like it used to be when I first started. Now you have people like the Dog Whisperer or the lady on TV that trains dogs. There are doggie boutiques now. That never used to be the case. You are now finding that people can be successful at things because they like it so much. Just because you are “breaking trail” if you will, doesn’t mean that there isn’t a possibility for this to be a way to support yourself in life. You might have big Wall Street investments but that’s not my definition of success. I am excited I have been given this opportunity to encourage people to dream.G: Was it a hard transition for you to make?D: The transition is recognizing that your life is a glass bowl. It seems almost silly for me to say that compared to, for instance, Sarah (Palin) and the state of Alaska. We have really seen what a glass bowl is. But I take it very seriously. I think about the way I conduct myself. I don’t want to discourage some young girl or somebody who is watching me. I take that position very seriously. So it is a transition because before you were just somebody, and now you are somebody that other people are watching.G: During your speaking engagements, what are you mostly called upon to talk about? Cancer survival? Motivation?D: It’s a lot of different things. Motivation is a big deal. Team building skills, goal focusing, perseverance, long term goals, ideals of success, definitions of success. I also talk about the history of Alaska, the history of dogs in Alaska, the relationship between man and dogs, the partnership that Alaska and dogs have had with opening up the Arctic. I am constantly on a learning curve and on the hunt for more information about that. I am interested in subsistence living and always have been. That was one of my greatest attractions in the Bethel area. I traveled thousands of miles out there by boat and by snow machine before I ever got a dog team. I went from Nikolai to Bethel in a 16’ johnboat one summer with my mom and a black lab doing fish surveys. I took a boat from Bethel all the way around to Togiak, a herring boat. Then I camped on the beach for a month. And then went from Togiak all the way to Norton Sound and fished herring. I then ended up going all the way to Ketchikan for the pink salmon season. There’s more to my thirst for adventure than just on the runners. I love to fish. I love running gill nets. It’s a passion I’ve always enjoyed. And I’ve always enjoyed running boats. Mike taught me how to drive my first outboard motor and little did he know, 32 years later I’d be driving jet boats all over South Central, herring boats from Unalakleet to Ketchikan.G: Now, getting back to dogs. How is your training going this year? We have had some pretty good conditions in Willow.D: I think we’ve had great conditions in Willow. Just recently they’ve been a little bit bizarre. I was on a sled by the 8th of October, which the guys around here always laugh because I go onto a sled the minute I can. I’d rather drive eight 6-dog teams than two 16-dog teams on a four-wheeler. Part of that is because after my breast surgeries, I can man-handle a sled easier than I can a four-wheeler. I also feel like this is stuff I’m going to see on the Farewell Burn, I’m going to run across stumps, I’m going to run across glare ice. In October I’m thinking about March—going across the Burn or going across dirt somewhere on the Beaver Mountains and recognizing that all of this is training for that. Then we got on good snow and were able to drive bigger teams and we were able to open lots of trails around here. It wasn’t until we got this cold spell that things started to gob up a little bit. I didn’t see any advantage of putting long miles on my dogs at 45 below. I went into a period of time of about 3 weeks where we didn’t do anything over 20 miles. The day after Christmas we spent 14 hours shoveling the kennel out because I knew when it dropped it would be like cement around here. From then on it was really cold. By the time it got warm here, I was in Bethel. I got one run in before Kusko. That wasn’t too good. It was raining like crazy out there. The reason the dogs didn’t place well in the Kusko was that the only way they were going to be able to handle that transition of muscular demands from all the cushion that we had with deep snow to hard fast trails was more rest. So rather than taking the mandatory 6 and 4, which is pretty much the Kusko recipe, I gave them a lot more rest than that. I believed that was the right thing to do. I came home with ice leaders, dogs that can write my name in glare ice, with dogs that were comfortable and that can keep their feet underneath them with booties on in glare ice. When I came back here and our trails were so icy, Mike turned to me and said, “I don’t think there’s hardly any trail here.” But I thought it was the best trail I had seen in over a week. So we bootied them up and did 4 or 5 hour runs last week after I got home. When we got a little bit of snow, Mike was able to pack it and get it to cling to the ice. Yesterday we did 6 and 7 hour runs. G: As far as miles, are you where you want to be? D: I do time, not miles. I have this nifty computer program that a friend of mine put together for me and I was entering the miles per dog and then it crashed. He got it back up but by then I had no idea where I was really at so I stopped keeping track. I have these benchmarks in my mind after 27 years of getting ready—mileage and times. I knew when I went to Kusko I was behind on it. When I came home from Kusko, I knew the Kusko dogs were no longer behind on it. These guys usually run a 200-mile race, which they are not going to get to do because the Don Bowers race is for rookies only now, and that’s a good thing. That was a race I normally would have been in. The Tustumena, well, I can’t see traveling down there, they are full as well. The Klondike, which I was set up to run, didn’t happen and I’m not going to run it on the first weekend of February—it’s a little close. At least I don’t think I am at this point. (Editor’s note: DeeDee did run the Kondike, placing 7th) I’ll go out and do some back-to-back 100’s on my own with a short break, simulate a race on my own, and I’ll be ready.G: I’d like to get a quick overview of the bloodlines of your dogs. You’ve been racing dogs a long time—where do they come from?D: The dog that is making the biggest genetic contribution to the kennel is a dog named Ivan. He came from British Columbia, from Terry Streeper. His two littermates are in Buddy’s team. Terry had a neighbor that I bought 9 dogs from in the early 90’s. The dog comes from Roger Leegaard’s bloodline on one side and then it comes from the Streepers on the other side. When I went to buy those 9 dogs, I was looking for genetic integrity to add to the Wright/Champagne line because I had a lot of that. I needed some diversity. Out of these 9 dogs, this was “the dog.” It was decided that he was too big and a little too slow as a yearling and I got him after that year. He could trot 17 miles an hour. Everything about him is “knock your socks off.” Genetically shy, but once he got to know you he was 100% your dog. He has a personality I fell head over heels with. I just retired him two years ago. He was my leader the year I had chemo. He led me to an 18th place when I could virtually do nothing. He didn’t do it his first Iditarod, I had to drop him in Ophir. He didn’t make that transition, which has been my experience. Dogs don’t make the transition from sprint to distance easily—it takes time. He has been a magnificent bloodline to cross with. Everything I had crossed wonderfully with him. So now you are looking at a team that has five out of five from one litter in the team, six out of six from another litter on the team—all sired by him. G: Leegaard was known for pioneering the hound and husky crosses but that dog doesn’t look very “houndy.”D: But he has it in his background. I’m not a big advocate of the hound crosses because I believe the dogs genetically need fur for what we are doing. For what we’re doing my dogs need to come with fur. They don’t need all these costumes that we put on dogs to pretend they have fur. We’ve seen some cold winters recently and we’ve seen dogs without those protections really struggle. He is a good combination because I then crossed some husky with that. I am very happy with what I got from that.G: Do you top-level Iditarod racers breed dogs to each other?D: Yes, Martin and I do. I see no reason to reinvent the wheel. When somebody’s got something going that has really proven itself, able to repeat itself, and they are smart and know what they are doing, I am very interested and I will go there. Like all of us, we’ve been victimized by backyard breeding programs where somebody sells you something that isn’t exactly what they say it is. People need to be really careful who they go to. First of all who they go to, that the genetics are really what they say they are and that you can feel a great level of comfort with that. Secondly that the dogs are raised in a healthy manner because some of the puppy diseases, parasite problems and nutritional issues, a lack of somebody’s economics that might not make them give the dogs what they need to have at a particular growth time, then you’re going to end up with a dog that isn’t what it should be, not what it could be and definitely not able to make a contribution to your team. Why would you go there and buy that when you are basically throwing your money out the window.G: How many dogs are you training that you think have a possibility for the Iditarod?D: Twenty-six.G: How many do you train totally, including your yearlings?D: I was training 42 but now I am only hooking up those 26. I’ve dispersed those other dogs to help train young dogs and pups because for various issues, injuries, coming into heat, they are not going to make the race team this year. I need to focus on melding the personalities and the teamwork program of those 26. I’ll get them down to 24 in time for the pre Iditarod vet work.G: In the Discovery special you mentioned you felt the essence, the strong point of you team, was its speed. Do you feel that the strategy of faster runs, and more rest, comparatively, is still a winning strategy considering the current “long run” strategy?D: I believe that’s still a winning strategy. The problem that interferes with that is all the snow machine traffic that has developed on the trail, all the sight seeing traffic and the media traffic because they change the surface of the trail. That makes it less able to showcase a speed team so how are you going to get a hard trail? You’re going to get a hard trail because you’ve put the trail in and left it alone and not have these paddle tracks, snow machines tearing the crust off of it. There’s not much snow on it; it’s an icy trail. And that, snow machines can run over that ‘til the cows come home. We’ll have to wait and see what the conditions allow for. One of the things I’ve done this year is I put some more long runs on them. I believe you can train recovery.G: When you say long, do you mean longer than 6, longer than 8 or hours?D: Yes. I think that’s why you’re seeing some of the Quest dogs do so well in Iditarod—they have been trained well in recovery. Their speed might not be all much, but they’re recovering in 6 hours. G: I’ve heard Lance say, “I don’t have the fastest team but I can outmarch anyone.” I didn’t realize, even following the Iditarod as closely as I did, and while watching the Discovery channel, he kind of lured Jeff into his game and Jeff thought, “Well I could go back to my game plan at any minute.” And all of a sudden it was too late.D: When that happened, that 45 minutes, Jeff’s speed could no longer negate that.G: That was the best part of that whole series. Would you ever consider racing your teams in one of the longer sprint races like the Rondy?D: Yes. If the trail conditions had remained good, I was considering doing it this year. G: To the outsider or casual fan, mushing looks like a lot of fun, but I and any serious musher knows, or will learn quickly, that hard work and sacrifice is what it takes to be successful in this game. There are easier ways to make a living. Twenty-six Iditarods, almost thirty years in the sport—what motivates you to stay involved with sled dogs and keep a competitive edge?D: My main motivation is the dogs themselves. Every year is like driving a new team because you’ve got young dogs in there that are learning things. You’re seeing your genetic program come together. For example, I’m seeing Ivan’s contribution, his life long contribution to the genetics of this kennel. Obviously I’m casting around now to make that jump again. Now so many dogs are related to him, I have to go again. I’ve tried a couple of directions but have not found the next direction yet but I’m always looking. I’m curious, I’m trying to match body sizes, head sets, nutritionally what their bodies can handle. I’m looking for that to be able to take them to the next step. That challenge brings me back to the table every year and I get really excited about the season. That’s what I’m not ready to give up. I find so much joy out of that. I’ve always loved animals, loved dogs. When I was a kid, they were the one thing that was always consistent was my pets; they were my very best friends. No matter where we moved, I got to take my best friends with me. And it’s just been expanded as I’ve been an adult. That’s what is motivational for me. I don’t need to have a kennel of hundreds of dogs. I’d rather have it smaller. I’m down to 61 dogs now. I’d like to keep it in the 50 and 60s so I can have more one-on-one time with the individuals. I don’t know if you saw when you came in here there’s a herd of about 5 or 6 of the old dogs that are just meandering around. I really find a lot of personal enjoyment out of watching my old dogs have a nice retirement. It’s that full all-encompassing lifestyle that brings me back every year.G: It’s a tough sport. There are a lot of variables. There are a lot of things you have to be good at: dog psychology, dog nutrition – the physical conditioning of your dogs and yourself…D: And money making. You have to be an entrepreneur extraordinaire. You have to try and come up with all different ways to support it. Everybody has different gifts they try to cash in on and they try to patent some of the things they see can be useful. Some of them are speakers, some of them are writers, some of them work seasonal like doing construction. Everybody has to have another way to support their kennels than just racing. Racing is just way too iffy. You have to have other ways, otherwise you will lose your kennel.G: I really appreciate your time and I have just one last question: Is Willow, Alaska the best place on earth for a musher to live or what?D: I have two favorite places in the whole world—Bethel and Willow. ●

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